9 Travel Tips That Will Protect Your Mental Health

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When Meredith R., 28, prepared to go on her meticulously planned vacation to Paris, she wasn’t thinking too much about her mental health. In fact, she kind of hoped her depression and anxiety would take a vacation of their own while she was living out a lifelong dream. How could I be anything but happy in Paris? she thought. “I didn’t realize it until after the fact, but as I was planning, I was working around a very specific fantasy of what my vacation would look like,” she tells SELF. “That fantasy didn’t involve me being depressed or anxious.”

But Meredith’s mental illnesses didn’t take a break just so she could enjoy her vacation. She had her first panic attack after navigating crowds to climb the stairs to a lookout point at Sacré-Cœur. “I was so thrown for the rest of the trip,” she says. “I was even more anxious because I thought another panic attack could strike at any time, and I got caught in a hell of a negative thought spiral about how my trip was ruined, which was basically a flytrap for my depression. It was awful.”

Looking back, Meredith says she wishes she had planned ahead instead of just hoping for the best where her mental health was concerned. Experts typically agree that that’s a smart call no matter your history of mental illness because travel can be stressful or triggering for just about anybody, Claire Westmacott, M.P.H., a research specialist with the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT), tells SELF. “Traveling can get overwhelming quite quickly,” she says. “The process—like jet lag [and] navigating airports, unfamiliar places, and crowds—can all be physically and mentally taxing.”

It’s so, so normal to be overly optimistic about how your mental health will fare on vacation. “A common misunderstanding among some people with depression, anxiety, or other conditions is that when I leave my surroundings, my problems will also leave,” clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D., tells SELF. “Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Your [condition] will likely come with you.”

With that in mind, we talked to experts and travelers who have been there about their best tips for protecting your mental health while on the go. Here’s what they had to say.

1. Create a stress-relief tool kit.

It’s helpful to plan ahead for how you’ll deal with things like travel anxiety. You can keep it simple.

“If deep breathing, positive affirmations, seeking support, exercise, or journaling worked for you at home, it will probably work for you on vacation,” says Howes. The same goes for things like clutching stress balls, listening to grounding playlists, watching downloaded episodes of your favorite shows, or whatever you use to practice self-care on a regular basis.

If you don’t know where to start, try packing a journal, which Howes says can be an incredible tool. “Writing a journal helps you tame the tsunami of activity [of a trip] and forces all those feelings and experiences into a linear narrative,” he says. “By journaling, you’re beginning to write the story you’ll tell your friends about the trip when you return, which helps you feel more in control and grounded.”

2. Make plans for checking in with loved ones.

Even if you don’t anticipate being hit with a wave of homesickness, being away from everything that’s familiar to you can be unexpectedly stressful. “For some people, travel can feel like you’re floating in space, untethered from your day-to-day world, and this is scary,” says Howes.

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